Congress leaders are desperate that their vice president Rahul Gandhi be rebranded if the party has to improve its chances in Assembly elections to Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh at the end of the year. The question is how to go about it.
Rahul Gandhi proved that he is not a vote catcher in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the subsequent Assembly polls disappointing the Congress party, which expects its leaders to bring the party to power. There is a lot of disgruntlement brewing within the party. Even senior leaders are openly talking about surgery in the organisation, bringing accountability and sacking the non- performers.
At least half a dozen top leaders have privately expressed their dismay but they do not have the guts individually or collectively to go and tell Rahul what should be done. They want that Rahul should get rid of his rootless coterie which they feel is responsible for the state of affairs. As is the habit in the party, they do not want to blame Rahul but his team is on the firing line. His team includes hand picked members like Sanjay Nirupam, C.P.Joshi, Mohan Prakash and Prashant Kishore among others.
While critics feel that Rahul should be dumped, his supporters want him to be elevated and given a free hand in restructuring the party as well as to go for a new revival strategy. Since Sonia Gandhi is ailing and not fit enough to continue the rough and tumble of politics, Rahul has to lead from the front. This they feel is urgent and imperative as the BJP has been expanding fast and becoming a pan-Indian party while the Congress space has been shrinking. What the party lacks today, as a senior Congress leader put it recently in private conversation, is leadership, strategy, communication and finance.
So what should Rahul do now? First and foremost, he has to reinvent himself, become a 24/7 politicians and stop his disappearing acts. The party needs a new brand Rahul to click with the voters. He has donned the role of the angry young man but that has not clicked. Moreover, he must check the erosion of senior leaders leaving the party. For instance, only recently two senior leaders N.D.Tiwari and S.M.Krishna had left the Congress to join the BJP. There are others who are waiting to follow them reminding one of the Sitaram Kesri era in 1997 when several Congressmen left to join other parties. It was only after Sonia Gandhi took over in 1998 that erosion was checked.
Secondly, Rahul should involve the party leaders in reinventing the party. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair did it by reinventing the Labour party. For this the Congress has to think of new ideas, new issues, new strategy, new programmes and new election planks instead of clinging to the secular versus communal plank, which has failed to click. Also there is a feeling that the party is much too pro-Muslim, which is pushing the Hindu voters towards a BJP that is trying to polarise the electorate. This reinvention will be a daunting task, as it needs a nuanced strategy. The results of the recent Assembly polls including UP have proved that the issues the Congress and other Opposition parties raised did not click with the voters. Also, going after Prime Minister Modi has proved to be counter-productive.
Thirdly, at least now the Congress should build the organisation from the gross-roots. The District Congress, the Pradesh Congress and the other arms of the Congress like the Seva Dal, NSUI and Mahila Congress need to be activated with new faces and new ideas with a view to reconnect with the voters. The past decades have proved that the Indira Gandhi era of politics does not work with the new voter profile.
Fourthly, at least now the Gandhis should a groom second line of leadership at the Central as well as the state level and project dynamic leaders as chief ministerial faces and Pradesh Congress presidents.
Fifthly, the party should decide which should be the main target sections to woo. The BJP has identified the poor, the women and the youth as well as done proper caste arithmetic for winning polls. The Congress, which had the support of the poor under Indira Gandhi has lost that constituency over the years, even to Modi as shown by the recent polls. The Brahmins, Dalits, and Muslims who were its core voters have abandoned the party for the past three decades after the rise of caste and identity based parties. Women too are disenchanted with the Congress.
The optimists in the Congress point out that it is not too late to revive the party. After all despite its drawbacks, the Congress still has about 19.3 per cent vote share in comparison to the 31 per cent vote share of the BJP. With proper alliances, the arithmetic could be made up to fight the BJP in future. The tragedy is that Rahul despite 13 years of experience in the party has not gained the required leadership qualities. If he realises that he is not up to it he should make way for others.